We Need To Stop Using These Ableist Expressions About Mental Health

When we use words this way, we equate mental health with moral failings, or at least diminish the seriousness of mental illness in general.

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 

By now, we all know now that we shouldn’t use the r-word. That’s mostly, finally, sunk into America’s brain, or at least if a celebrity used it, they’d be somewhat publicly shamed for it, so that counts. Unfortunately, when we bring up other ableist expressions about mental health, no one cares. In “Hot N Cold,” Katy Perry can sing, “Someone call the doctor/Got a case of love bipolar.” Everyone has ADHD moments. We’re all “so OCD.”

Newsflash: she shouldn’t, everyone doesn’t, and we’re not.

When we use words this way, we equate mental health with moral failings, or at least diminish the seriousness of mental illness in general. Not cool. This has nothing to do with freedom of speech: you can use your speech however you want. But when your speech hurts people, you probably want to check how you use it, and recognize that your word-vomit implies you hold certain attitudes and assumptions. Like, “people can be blamed for their own mental illness.” Or “mental illness isn’t very serious.” You don’t actually think these things, or if you do, you’re an ableist twatwaffle.

Remember: words have power. When we use them in certain ways, we imply certain things about ourselves and the world around us. Like, “I am an ableist twatwaffle.” It’s called connotation. You were supposed to learn about it in 10th grade English class. Since you want to avoid that particular connotation, avoid these particular words and expressions.

Committed suicide: what else do people commit? Crimes. First of all, you’re sort of equating suicide and criminality, which isn’t cool because we do not live in the Dark Ages. Second, “commit” implies full consent and sound mind. No one who dies in this manner is in a mental state to fully consent to anything, let alone whether or not they want to continue existing on this planet. “Committed suicide” simply implies an a degree of agency that people don’t have. It is not someone’s fault. They are not to blame for their mental illness. Instead, say died by suicide.

I’m so bipolar: usually used to mean you change your mind all the goddamn time. Except you are not actually bipolar. You know that. Here’s an interesting fact: According to one study, somewhere between 25% and 60% of people with bipolar disorder “will attempt suicide at least once in their lives,” and “between 4% and 19% will complete suicide.” There is a wide, wide gulf between your inability to decide between date-night dresses and someone’s propensity towards suicidality due to a devastating mood disorder. When you use this ableist expression, you’re minimizing bipolar disorder. Stop it.

I’m so ADHD: You do not have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. You didn’t even know what the goddamn acronym stood for. Being fleetingly distractible one on particular morning at one particular meeting does not make you, me, or anyone else have ADHD. Distraction via squirrel (why the fuck is it always a squirrel?) does not make anyone have ADHD. Because people don’t believe adults can have ADHD; believe in ADHD in general; believe in medicating ADHD; and a host of other fuckery, it’s actually really important that you check this ableist expression. People with ADHD are so used to having their symptoms minimized that having their diagnosis minimized is even more offensive.

I’m so OCD: see above. Because you’re not. You’re only minimizing someone’s mental illness when you say this.


And while we’re on the subject, S/he’s so ________ is ableist as all hell in and of itself. A person is not their diagnosis. A person has a diagnosis. Oh, and they also don’t suffer from something. Some of us out here would rather not suffer, thanks. It’s rude.

The short bus: Seriously? Let’s examine this more closely. Schools used smaller buses to sequester special-needs or disabled children from “normal” children. Many of them rode the “short bus” to programs that segregated them from the rest of the school population. Is that history offensive enough for you? You’re saying the r-word without saying the r-word. Stop fucking saying the r-word.

Insane: This one bothers me. It has negative connotations when applied to people with mental illnesses (remember “insane asylums”?). When applied to people without actually referring to any mental illnesses they may have, it seems to use an offensive term for mental illness and imply mental illness where none exists all at the same time. This one’s so ingrained in our culture I’m probably fighting a losing battle, much like I am with the word crazy. I mean, can’t you people just say batshit, nutty, bonkers, wacko, clueless, etc.? In fifth grade or so, your English teacher taught you about thesauruses. Now, your lazy ass can just type “crazy synonym” into your taskbar and a million answers will pop up. I know because I just fucking did. You have no excuse for ableist expressions. Google’s like, right there.

So check yourself. Don’t use mental health diagnoses as anything other than actual diagnoses. Here’s a litmus test: are you talking about someone’s actual mental illness? No? Then don’t use the name of the illness.

Otherwise you’ll look like — say it with me — an ableist twatwaffle.

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